Epigenetics is the study of how our environment influences our genes by changing the chemicals attached to them. What we eat, our physical activity level, access to resources and more affect those chemicals, in turn shaping our health. Epigenetics can help scientists understand why diseases happen and explore new avenues for treatment.

What is epigenetics?

Epigenetics is one way that scientists learn how the things around us and the choices we make change the way our genes work. We often think of genes as factors we have no control over. After all, we inherit them from our biological parents. And from the moment we enter the world, those genes determine so much about us — from our eye color to our risk for certain diseases. Genes feel set in stone and predetermined. But what if we could change how those genes work in ways that improve our health?

That’s the hope of scientists who study epigenetics. And that’s why epigenetics is a topic more and more people — including you — may want to learn about. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of study that looks at how certain chemicals inside your body’s cells control how your genes work. Scientists call these chemicals epigenetic marks or chemical signatures. Sometimes, these chemical signatures help your body become stronger or more resilient. Other times, they harm your health.

If you break down the word epigenetics, you get epi + genetics. “Epi” is Greek for “over, outside of, around.” “Genetics” refers to genes — the thousands of pieces of DNA that make you a unique person. So, when we talk about epigenetics, we’re talking about everything that’s around your genes. Scientists look at the chemicals that are literally on your genes and act upon them. But they also look at elements we can actually see in our daily lives, like the foods we eat, how much exercise we get and even the care we received as babies.

Scientists have known for a while that our environment and individual behaviors shape our health. For example:

  • Exposure to certain toxins raises your risk of cancer.
  • Air pollution can lead to asthma.
  • Exercise strengthens your heart.
  • Eating nutritious foods is good for your brain and your body.

Your health and longevity aren’t just products of your genes or nature. There are other factors at work.

Genes and DNA

Genes are the basic units of DNA. People often compare your entire DNA sequence to a cookbook or instruction manual. That’s because your DNA provides the instructions all the cells in your body need to work normally. Your cells “read” DNA to learn what to do and how to do it.

You have trillions of cells in your body at any given time. And they’re constantly reproducing to replace cells that die (making copies of themselves). That’s because the same cells aren’t supposed to stick around your whole life — they die, and new ones replace them continually. This is part of your normal body functioning. And those trillions of cells rely on your DNA to know how to develop, when to make copies of themselves and when to stop reproducing.

Cells each do their own thing inside your body. And they read specific sections of your DNA to do it. Those sections are your individual genes. You can think of your genes like chapters in an instruction manual or recipes in a cookbook. Genes are the smaller sections that, together, make up your genome.

But each cell doesn’t read the entire set of instructions (your entire DNA sequence or genome). This is because each cell doesn’t need the whole set of instructions — it only needs certain parts. Cells have specialized functions in your body, and they just need to know enough to do their own specific jobs. After all, you don’t need the spaghetti sauce recipe when baking a cake. You only need the recipe for what you’re making.

What is the epigenome?

Your epigenome is all of your genes plus everything that regulates how you use those genes. And your epigenome is dynamic. It changes over time. That can be both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that things like nutritious food, exercise and manageable stress can result in epigenetic changes that can promote health. But other factors like processed foods, smoking and lots of stress can cause epigenetic changes that can harm health.

So, what influences your epigenome? And what can you do about it? There’s a lot we don’t yet know. But the evidence so far suggests that what we put into our bodies and how we interact with the world around us can have a powerful effect on our epigenome. It’s not always possible to control these aspects of our lives, but we can manage them in some situations — and that’s more than we can say for the genes we inherit.


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What diseases are linked to epigenetics?

Scientists continue to learn more about how epigenetic changes affect your body and disease development. And they believe that certain changes in your body and disease states can alter your epigenome.

The latest research shows epigenetic changes are involved in:

As research continues, scientists hope to:

  • Gain new insight into how epigenetic changes cause or occur along with various medical conditions.
  • Learn what we can do in our daily lives to reduce the risk of certain diseases.
  • Develop new disease treatments that target the epigenome.

What can change the epigenome?

Your epigenome is shaped by countless forces, some of which begin exerting their influence before you’re even born. Here are some examples:

  • The foods your biological mother ate while pregnant with you (pregnancy diet).
  • Your biological mother’s overall health and well-being while pregnant.
  • The nutrition you received as an infant and toddler.
  • Trauma at a young age (adverse childhood experiences).
  • Your learning experiences and interactions with adults as a young child.
  • Exposure to toxins like air pollution, diesel exhaust or cigarette smoke.
  • Exposure to chemicals like plastics, BPA or heavy metals like lead or cadmium.
  • Use of certain prescription medications.
  • Use of substances like alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs.
  • The foods you eat as an adult.
  • Your level of physical activity.
  • The level of stress in your daily life.
  • Your relationships and social interactions.
  • The community you live in and the ways it supports (or doesn’t support) you.
  • Access to healthcare and resources to support your health needs.

Scientists are still investigating how these exposures and encounters translate to changes in your cells. In general, these factors create epigenetic marks on your DNA that affect how your cells work.

For example, epigenetic marks might prevent cells from reading certain parts of your genome. This means a certain gene gets turned off — or silenced — when it should be on. As a result, your cells can’t read those genes (recipes), and they might not do all the tasks necessary to keep you healthy — like stopping tumors from growing. Some harmful epigenetic changes are short-term and reversible. Others last for a long time or even for life.

But epigenetic marks can be helpful, or protective, too. For instance, giving a baby plenty of opportunities for learning can lead to positive epigenetic changes that support their mental and physical health for years to come.

You can’t choose the genes you get from your parents, and you can’t control many aspects of the world around you. But knowing all the factors that “nurture” you — and your children — can help you do whatever possible to promote a healthy epigenome.


Can you positively influence your epigenome?

Yes. There’s no single roadmap for how to do it, but scientists believe certain choices we make can support positive epigenetic changes and lower the risk of harmful changes. Here are some tips:

  • Eat nutritious foods. A dietitian can help you create an eating plan that suits your health needs and lifestyle.
  • Build physical activity into your day. Be sure to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise plan. They’ll make sure any exercise is safe for you.
  • Limit alcohol and avoid tobacco products.
  • Try to relax and unwind as much as possible to manage stress.

These are all things you can work on for yourself. But research shows our epigenome is most open to change during the earliest years of life. So, if you’re a parent or caregiver, it’s important to:

  • Make sure your child is getting the right nutrition. Your pediatrician can advise you on how to do this.
  • Give your child opportunities to learn from an early age. This might mean giving them toys that help them learn and remember, or talking and reading to your child and teaching them new words.
  • Surround your child with supportive, loving people who make them feel comfortable and safe.
  • Reach out to a healthcare provider if you’re facing challenges like food insecurity, housing insecurity or domestic abuse. They’ll help you get the resources you need to support and protect yourself and your children.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

If the concept of epigenetics sounds both exciting and overwhelming — you’re not alone. Thinking about what goes on inside your body can leave you in wonder and awe, but it can also leave you feeling vulnerable or helpless. So much feels out of our control. Epigenetics provides hope that we can have a say in those inner workings.

Compared to other areas of study, epigenetics is still fairly new. There’s a lot we don’t know. But that means there’s much left to discover. Your healthcare provider can tell you more about the role of your genes and epigenome in your health. They can also point you to further resources.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 02/16/2024.

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